How to Survive Trips to High Elevations

tips for traveling to high altitudes at places like Mt. Everest Updated September 2, 2016
Some of the most worthwhile locations in the world are at high elevations. High elevations mean beautiful mountain peaks, seemingly endless vistas and some of the coolest atmospheric conditions anywhere. But at the views come at a price: unless you grew up in a mountain village somewhere, you’re probably highly susceptible to altitude sickness.

Altitude sickness, also known as acute mountain sickness (AMS), can strike anyone regardless of age, sex, or level of physical fitness. It’s more a matter of personal body chemistry than demographics. The causes of AMS involve the beautiful but rarified air you breathe. The rule is the higher the elevation, the lower the proportion of its oxygen molecules making regular breathing difficult for some folks.

AMS is very common at high altitudes. Symptoms typically occur at elevations higher than 8,000 feet (2,500 meters), with more easily contractible symptoms at and above 10,000 feet (3,000 meters). 75% of people will have mild AMS symptoms above 10,000 feet, depending on the elevation,  the rate of ascent to that elevation (going up faster usually causes stronger symptoms) and each individual’s susceptibility. There’s little doubt that these symptoms can come about quickly and unexpectedly, typically starting 12 to 24 hours after arrival, decreasing in severity around the third day.

Symptoms of mild AMS:

  • Headache
  • Nausea & dizziness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Loss of sleep
  • Fatigue
  • Nosebleeds
  • Swelling of the hands, face and feet
  • Diarrhea
  • Shortness of breath while at rest
  • A general feeling of disorientation or malaise

Mild AMS can be unpleasant, but it’s much less serious than severe mountaineering symptoms which may be life-threatening.

Mild AMS shouldn’t interfere with normal activity, and symptoms usually subside within two to four days as the body acclimates. When hiking and traveling at high altitudes, it’s very important to communicate any symptoms you’re feeling to others on your trip. One of the characteristic symptoms of AMS is a feeling of disorientation and may not be immediately apparent to those under its effects.

Popular high elevation destinations

Tibet is a high altitude destination where you're at risk for AMS

If you’re traveling to place above 8,000 feet please be aware that you may be initiated into the elite group of altitude sickness sufferers. Here’s a handful of cities popularly visited by around the world travelers where you too can learn to survive trips to high elevations :

  • Lhasa, Tibet (12,200 feet, 3,650m)
  • La Paz, Bolivia (average around 11,500 feet, 3,500m)
  • Cuzco, Peru (10,800 feet, 3,310m)
  • Quito, Ecuador (9,350 feet, 2,850m)
  • Bogota, Colombia (8,675 feet, 2,644m)

How to combat acute mountain sickness

Get acclimated gradually. This is the process of getting your body used to the altitude changes by slowly ascending to higher grounds. This might be difficult if your travel plans are on a tight schedule, but if you’re able to spare the time, this is the best way to let your body adjust. Overland travelers who are hiking or climbing should increase sleeping elevation by 1,000 feet (300m) per night.

Allow at least one day of rest on arrival. Be sure not to schedule any strenuous activity on your first day. That said, don’t just hang out at your accommodations and sleep. Light activity is recommended as increased respiration helps alleviate symptoms. If you’re scheduling activities before your trip give yourself a one or two day buffer before you start scaling mountains on foot.

Avoid alcohol. At least for the first few days at a higher elevation, if not for your entire time, skip that evening beer or glass of wine. Alcohol has a nasty habit of dehydrating your body, which will only make AMS worse. Trust us, there’s no hangover in the world like a high-altitude hangover. If you must drink, take it slow, as people’s bodies react differently to alcohol at higher elevations.

Hydrate. Try to drink up to 5 liters of water per day to compensate for the natural water loss at high elevation. In South American countries like Bolivia and Peru try coca leaf tea, a traditional drink used by locals to alleviate elevation sickness.

Eat high-calorie foods. Nutrient-rich and calorie-dense foods like beans, rice, nuts, potatoes and fish require less oxygen to metabolize in your system and give you energy.

Bring Diamox (Acetazolamine).  Just in case, it’s a good idea to bring enough Diamox for your stay (available by prescription). It’s designed to increase the rate of breathing. Consult your doctor if you’re interested in going the pharmaceutical route. Diamox contains high levels of sulfur, which many people aren’t aware they’re allergic to.

Homeopathic treatments for altitude sickness

cuzco, peru, high altitude destinations
If you’ve been laid low with altitude sickness the easiest and best remedy is to get to lower elevations as soon as possible. If this isn’t an option, you’ll have to power through it. Here are a few natural methods.

Pranayama

This breathing exercise increases the amount of oxygen in your blood. One method, from YogaSite.com, involves 3 steps:

  1. Sit and take long, slow, deep breaths through the nostrils and allow the belly to fill with air. As you exhale, allow the belly to deflate like a balloon.
  2. Repeat step one but also expand the mid-chest region by allowing the rib cage to open outward to the sides. Exhale and repeat.
  3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 and continue inhaling up into the upper chest. Exhale and repeat.

Ginkgo

It’s been proven that Ginkgo enhances circulation, which increases blood and oxygen to the brain and extremities. Take 60 mg of ginkgo each day while at a higher elevation. It will also help to start taking ginkgo a few days before you arrive at elevation. Ginkgo extract (you can drink it with water) will absorb into your blood better than capsules.

Garlic soup

An ancient Sherpa remedy for altitude sickness, the effectiveness of garlic soup hasn’t been proven by any double-blind studies, but if you’re sick (and not allergic or otherwise opposed to garlic), it couldn’t hurt to try.

These remedies should be taken as a guide only. When in doubt, you should always consult your doctor. For further info on altitude conditions, have a look at FamilyDoctor.org.

Photo credits:  Daniel PrudekJixin YUsharptoyou.